Tokenism and Other Problems of Diversity

I was recently sent a review request for a fantasy novel that I thought I would enjoy. However, the racism inherent in the story’s premise made it impossible for me to read without getting angry, and I quit about a third of the way into the novel. Instead of writing a negative review, I thought I could write a little more generally about some of the problems of diversity in books and other media. I’ve mentioned my passion for diversity and representation in fiction before. I want to go more in depth about some of the wrong ways to do diversity.
  1. Relying on Stereotypes
The sassy black woman. The nerdy Asian. The flamboyant gay man. We’re all familiar with these stereotypes about marginalized groups, and when writers are trying to create diverse characters, this is often where they start. But stereotypes aren’t just inaccurate or offensive, they’re lazy. It can take more work to create well-rounded, three-dimensional characters with their own motivations and plot development, but it’s a basic requirement of good writing. Just like you don’t want your protagonist to fill a stereotype like the Chosen One or Damsel in Distress, you have to work to breathe life into any minority characters that you put into your work. Doing otherwise is disrespectful, perpetuates these stereotypes—and won’t win over readers to care about those caricatures.
  1. Tokenism
Tokenism is unfortunately still common in many types of media. Writers include one black guy, or one LGBT character, or one disabled character, etc., and then think they’ve “solved” the diversity problem for their story. This is only compounded when the token character is also a stereotype and/or the token character dies, often to further the plot of another character. The problem lies in thinking that there’s a “quota” of one or two non-white (or non-male, or non-straight, or non-cis) characters, and once you fill that in your cast, you can get your Diversity Stamp of Approval ™ and move on.
These token characters are also often secondary characters, and treated as such by the plot. For example, the Gay Best Friend who gives relationship advice to the straight characters, but never has a romance of his own. Don’t just use minorities to fill up the background, give them a chance in the spotlight, too.
  1. White Protagonist to Make the Story Accessible
There’s a huge trend right now to write stories about a marginalized group of people, but told through the eyes of a privileged protagonist to make the story more “accessible”. For example, a story about a group of diverse women in prison—many of whom are working class, racially diverse, queer, trans, and so on—but told from the perspective of a blonde middle class white woman who has to learn to empathize with those who are different from her. A different story about the struggles of black housemaids in the South during the Sixties, but the protagonist is actually an aspiring middle class white writer who is inspired to tell their stories in a book. And yet another story about the gay rights movement which focused on a white, straight-acting gay cis man while ignoring the real stories of black trans queer women, among other problems. Don’t assume white people will only enjoy a story if it’s about someone like them.
  1. Metaphors Instead of Addressing Real Issues
This one doesn’t seem as bad on the surface, but it’s actually avoiding uncomfortable subjects by using something fictional as a “metaphor” for real issues. For example, a story about humans discriminating against androids (or fae, witches, werewolves, aliens, or any other imaginary race) as a metaphor for slavery or racism. Writing about real racism is hard and complicated, but that doesn’t mean that you can dodge around it by making the Blue People oppress the Purple People and have the same impact.
Even worse are the fictional worlds that reverse the oppression to “show the shoe on the other foot” or whatever. This is where the roles are changed so now black people are oppressing white people, or gay people are oppressing straight people, etc. It’s not a clever “thought experiment” or a way to create “empathy” in privileged people to make them think about how they would feel in that situation. Again, we don’t need to see people who are exactly like ourselves in order to understand them. Create empathy for characters of actual marginalized groups.
  1. Derailing the Conversation
This is a problem for everyone, not just writers/creators. When people start talking about the need for diversity, don’t spout silly nonsense about how you can never have total diversity until there’s a book or TV show for every possible combination, like a cat-loving plumber with red hair and a crooked nose who lives with his mother, so it’s hopeless to even try. Representation for truly marginalized groups does matter. Don’t trivialize the need for diversity by claiming that YOU aren’t perfectly represented, even though you’re a white cis straight man and 98% of mainstream media throughout the last two thousand years has represented you above everyone else. You can’t make a problem go away by talking over the people who are trying to have a real discussion. Sometimes you need to sit down and let someone else talk, and open your mind to seeing things from another perspective.
In the end, perfect representation may not be possible. But it’s a standard that we should hold all of our media to, and we should keep trying to get it right. It’s not always easy and sometimes we make mistakes. All we can do is keep trying, and listening to other people about how we can represent them better in our media. (And of course, giving more opportunities for minorities to create media, too.)
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